Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It was a hot, humid night in Times Square. Around Seventh Avenue and 48th Street a group of girls in party dresses got out of a white stretch Hummer, then turned around and snapped pictures of the car before it left, a swarm of camera and cell phone flashes. Further south, crowds of tourists wandered idly. Many of them stood gazing up at a giant screen on the east side of the square that showed what appeared to be a crowd, at night, in Times Square.

At Seventh and 45th, just south of a knot of comedy club barkers, an elderly woman in a white blouse and flower-print skirt stood handing out fliers, titled "The Search for Happiness" and "The Divine Plan of Salvation." Both were published by a company in Hanover, Pennsylvania and stamped with the addresses of the Times Square Church and the Calvary Baptist Church. "Let's go to Heaven!" and "God loves you!" she called out in accented English to the people who passed by. Few of them took the fliers. Some were engrossed in conversations. Others ignored her, politely declined or laughed in an embarrassed way. Some who presumably didn't speak English looked baffled as to what was taking place.

Her energy never seemed to flag, however. If someone started to take a flier but declined, she would chase him down the sidewalk and place it in his hand. When someone did take a flier, she would instantly wet her finger and whip a new one out of the stack she held in her other hand, ready for the very next passerby. All the while she kept up a half-sung mantra. "Hell is made for the devil, not for you!" she called out. "God has prepared Heaven for you!"

Her name is Erma and she was born in Brazil. She has been doing missionary work in New York since 1970. She spends a few days a week at Seventh and 45th, other days at different spots on 42nd, sometimes near Eighth and sometimes near Broadway. In a conversation she has friendly blue eyes and a warm smile.

After talking to her I kept walking through the crowds down Seventh. "Don't worry, I'm not homeless," a comedy barker at the corner of 42nd Street reassured a tourist family that might or might not have understood him.